The slime, a dark grey mass of endlessly self-replicating nanobots, engulfed the Earth. Whatever breathed, suffocated. Whatever stood on the ground, or swam in the oceans, or ever had to descend from the air, became fuel for the machines in their septillions. Rock by rock, the slime ate its way to the planet’s mantle, where it finally perished in a flare so hot that it burned away the atmosphere, so bright that it was seen from Mars.
The Ca-Tharsis Bar None, premier Martian luxury resort, transitioned overnight from cruise to lifeboat. It was the culmination of an experiment that had stopped at the production of an intoxicating drink, never to reach the conclusion that even fun could be distilled until it was no longer pleasant. On top of that, it was new, still hip and unique an Earth year after the star-studded grand opening. Even the staff had never stayed on Mars for more than a month before. But now the experiment resumed, and its subjects found that fun could be terrible. The novelty of Mars erupted in boils and cancers and strange swellings of the neck. Humans were made for Mother Earth, and even in death, she was a jealous goddess.
It was over, the whole ugly business, within a hundred Earth years. Cold red sand caressed a human femur, the dust riding a poison wind that was on its own business.
“I have to say,” Hades stated, “I’m not sure why I’m still here.”
A short way away from the femur lay a rib cage, partially abraded, partially mummified. “Why would there be gods with no worshippers?” He asked it. “Why should I exist in the form of a man when there are no more men to give this form meaning?”
There was no answer to his question. There was nobody on Mars but Hades, and as he walked among the blown-out ruins of the Ca-Tharsis biodome, he received no answers. But his voice was the only sound aside from the howling of the wind, and without it, he was afraid he would lose his grip.
“That I am here belies me,” Hades continued. His eyes fell on a table, luxury mahogany, still in decent shape despite its situation halfway under a red dune. He picked it up and set it right. “None of these people believed in my existence prior to their deaths. Even as they died, they didn’t know who I was.” Pausing, he considered, the Greek god of the underworld throwing his memory back as far as he was able. “I’m not sure I myself existed before the last death. I have no memory of what I was about just before coming here. Was I at a divine supermarket? Relaxing at Starbucks Olympus?”
The rusted landscape of Mars bore no answers. “I never knew them,” Hades shouted at it. “I have no Elysium. Lethe has burst its banks and I alone have survived.”
The wind scattered his voice through the surrounding hills, and Hades thought about how very happy he would be with a passel of miserable shades to fruitlessly demand an Afterlife from him. Their whining would be music on the toxic wind. Hades would gather them into his arms like lambs.
Stooping, Hades palmed a handful of rust-red dirt. It coursed blue with the fire that suffused his being, cold flames that neither warmed nor consumed him. He let the wind blow it away, still sparking with his light. Mars was no great walk for a god, and Hades had circumnavigated it several times. He had begun after he found himself standing over the final corpse, a twisted purple thing made ugly by surprise. The dome must have just blown out. Hades saw electrical sparks and a great deal of blood. The dry scarlet soil drank it eagerly, not varying in colour. Hades stooped fifteen times over fifteen bodies. Perhaps he could save them. He could perform a miracle, bring them back. Each body rang with the charge of his burning hands, but their spasms were muscular only.
For all of his long life, they had not really believed in him. He had not really believed in them either, not in the way that counted. He had never supposed that they’d be gone one day.
Hades wasted several days shrieking at the sky. When that proved fruitless, he searched. His bare feet took him to the top of Olympus Mons, where he found neither Zeus nor Yggdrasil. A fissure deeper than the Marianas Trench could only have been homey with the addition of millions of ethereals whispering his name, but it was empty and bare, ghostly only with Hades’ own corporeal glow. There was no Guan Yin, no Osiris, no Anansi, no Durga. Hades walked and called, walked and called.
It seemed only a day before the bodies reappeared at his feet. But the seasons had changed and the bones were stiff with desiccated flesh; it had been a long time since Hades had begun his journey. Mars had passed beneath his supernaturally even steps, day and night, through the strange months of this dead alien world.
So Hades had adjusted his trajectory a single degree and started again.
Who could now guess how many hundreds of years Hades had spent on the red surface? The lifetime of an entire human civilization couldn’t begin to encompass it. Every inch of Mars, every grain of its sand, had at one time been in contact with the cold flames of his feet. This planet’s wonders had revealed themselves to him without shyness. Mars was an experienced lover, practical with her austere treasures, and Hades suspected that she had known gods before. Traces of methane caused his divine fire to flare occasionally, especially near the poles, and once he encountered a rock the size of Mount Rushmore that bore the hint of a wind-worn nose, endowed with four nostrils but otherwise not unlike that of a dog. Pursued by the utter darkness and chaos of sandstorms, Hades delved deep into the cold heart of Mars. Something had carved the caves there, bored winding, empty passages shaped like spirals with several exits. But after another thousand years, all was quiet again on the surface. Hades ventured upward to find a landscape changed, changing, shifting in the thin air with a lizardlike life of its own. Mars had consumed his burned footprints. What it could make of them, even Hades couldn’t say. He began his walk again, following the moons as they hurled around the empty planet. Upon the great, god-bare shield of Olympus Mons, he felt he could almost touch them. Hades felt the urge to tear them both down rise in him like a storm and depart again in a single, sudden deflation. His hand fell across the bright pinpoint of Earth. Its surface was solid once more, filmed with a thin coating of primitive cyanobacteria. Soon, there would be air again, after a fashion. But not people. Not for a long time.
Hades held the bones in his hands, infusing them with his godhood at intervals. The eroded beauty of Mars, its ragged light and flensing sandstorms, was less fascinating than these pieces of discarded calcium. “How,” he asked them, “am I accomplishing this? Even gods are not immune to the laws of thermodynamics.” The bones made no reply, glowing blue. Hades attempted to trace the source of his power down, deep into the recesses of his own dark mind. He followed it through memories of a tall calcite throne deep in Gaia’s belly, hordes of the dead arrayed before him in mute testimonial to what he’d done. Their eyes were those of fish, of foetuses in bottles. Suddenly, Hades was repulsed by the memory, repulsed by his pride and his remembered pleasure at the sight. The thought of his wife, slowly sapped by the leeching cold of that place, battered him. The horsey faces of his sisters, bedraggled as they faded in his presence, provoked guilt that nauseated him and birthed a final understanding. He had been this lonely before. He had always been this lonely.
The bones that he held in his hands cracked and shattered. Grey dust spilled out, the chalky remains of marrow long wasted on a barren world.
The dust was grainy, but fine, very fine between Hades’s fingers. He brought it to his nose and inhaled. His aura flared ever so slightly.
Careful not to disturb the rest of the bones, Hades lowered himself cross-legged to the red surface of the planet. The robes of divinity billowed around him even as his flame burned unwavering, except for the occasional flare when Hades inhaled a stray whiff of methane. For hundreds of years, or thousands, or millions, he would not move. When they came, they would come from here, their haloarchaea and their fusobacteria and their stranger life forms yet. They would be many-legged. They would not know him.
Hades was not a natural storyteller. It would take time to make up a good reason for his being here. They would help him, once stories were a thing they understood.
Meanwhile, there was nothing left to do but wait.